Child Shark Pornography
–As the 36th annual Big Muddy Film Festival comes to a close, I am haunted by two very different films, one a feature, Drinking Buddies, which kicked off the festival, and the other a short, Neon Heartache, which won the Best Narrative Film award at the “Best of the Fest” final screening. SIU alumnus Joe Swanberg, shackled early on with an insult by David Denby, linking his films to what he derisively labeled mumblecore, has made the transition to big time Hollywood filmmaking with Drinking Buddies, starring Olivia Wilde, an established actress well known for her roles in House, M.D. and Cowboys and Aliens.
There’s a moment in the middle of Drinking Buddies that perfectly captures Swanberg’s radical resistance to conventional story structure. Kate (Wilde) is a hopelessly lost young adult, clearly in love with Luke (Jake Johnson), who is in turn in a static relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick). During a vacation in which Luke and Jill share a cabin with Kate and her boyfriend, Chris (Ron Livingston), Luke and Kate get up in the middle of the night to go out to the beach to sit by a campfire. Kate decides to go skinny-dipping, and entices Luke into the water. He does not move, and the scene ends abruptly.
The moment invokes the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), but refuses to engage any of its traditional narrative logic. The beginning of Jaws features teenagers by a nighttime campfire on Amity Island. Chrissy decides to go swimming, stripping her clothes as she dives into the water. A drunk, horny teenager follows her, passing out on the shore. Meanwhile, in the water a shark unceremoniously eats Chrissy in an assault whose soundtrack is far more sexual than icthyological. In Drinking Buddies, the urge toward big dramatic moments—Kate neither gets eaten by a shark in the lake, nor is Luke at all interested in pursuing his sexual desire for her—is completely eschewed in favor of quiet contemplation, attempting to reveal that our lives are far more stasis than they are character arcs and profound transformations.
For its part, the short, Danielle Lessovitz’s Neon Heartache (2013) is no less radical in its narrative construction. A tween girl is at home alone with her brother. He tickles her in a way that we worry will turn incestuous, but all seems well when he leaves the house. A neighboring girl who comes to sell chocolate, asks the enticingly named Eden whether she can come in from the cold. The two girls strike up a friendship, singing and dancing to music videos on television.
Eden goes upstairs to her brother’s room to explore. In a stunning camera position, we see Eden put on what appears to be a bright red dress, which we suspect is a bildungsroman moment of exploring her sexuality for the first time. However, when we see Eden downstairs, it turns out the garment is her brother’s wrestling uniform. When Sean returns, he is angry, demanding that Eden return his belongings. He wrestles her to the floor in a seemingly banal moment of sibling rivalry.
The events again turn lighthearted as the children playfully tickle each other. In the film’s stunning final moment, however, Sean accidentally pulls the wrestling outfit down over Eden’s arm, revealing the girl’s developing breast. The film stops dead in its tracks, as Sean is repelled by his sister’s sexuality. He sits wordlessly in close-up on the couch, his face turning from joy to a mix of horror and deep disappointment. Sean is Drinking Buddies’ Luke in his nascent state, confronting unfathomable sexual difference for the first time. It is an exquisite moment of cinema, as without any words necessary, we come to realize that the relationship between these two siblings will never be the same. Without a proper conversation about the sexuality of children—Where are the adults in this world?—they are left tragically without a language to understand what is happening to them.
Neon Heartache is a jewel, a kind of wonderous film only to be found on the festival circuit. It is exquisitely efficient in its imagery. And yet, crucially, it seems to emerge as if not of this world of Puritanical American culture. While pondering the film, I wondered how it was not being accused of child pornography, which it most certainly is not. Indeed, the conversation we need to have in America is about our love of violence and our abject fear of sexuality, the subject of which of Drinking Buddies. Neon Heartache is a microcosmic answer to why the characters of Drinking Buddies are trapped in dysfunctional sexual stasis. Why would it be the case that watching a shark murder a naked woman in Jaws is perfectly acceptable while a film about the natural development of female sexuality is somehow shocking and taboo? The power of a great film festival is that it allows us to ask and answer these questions through the power of moving pictures.
– Walter Metz